China’s pick of seasoned diplomat for top job at foreign ministry office in Hong Kong shows Beijing still worried about national security threats in city, analysts say

·5-min read

Beijing has appointed a veteran diplomat seasoned in US-China relations and security issues to head the foreign ministry’s Hong Kong office, with analysts saying the move shows the central government remains concerned about external interference in the financial hub.

Observers also noted Liu Guangyuan, a minister at the Chinese embassy in Washington from 2007 to 2010, was director general of the ministry’s Department of External Security Affairs from 2014 to 2018, and vocal in defending Beijing against foreign attacks during his tenure as ambassador to Poland from 2018 to last month.

Xinhua news agency on Wednesday reported the central government had appointed Liu as commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong.

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The move was the latest in a reshuffle this year at the ministry’s Hong Kong office, which saw Liu’s predecessor Xie Feng promoted to vice-minister of foreign affairs after serving as commissioner from 2017 to January. Deputy commissioner Yang Yirui had been leading the office since his departure.

Xie Feng was promoted to vice-minister of foreign affairs. Photo: TNS
Xie Feng was promoted to vice-minister of foreign affairs. Photo: TNS

Apart from his Washington posting, Liu, who joined the foreign ministry in 1986, spent time in the United States as deputy consul general in San Francisco from 2000 to 2002.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor welcomed the appointment.

“On numerous occasions in recent years when the [Hong Kong] government was subject to unfair attacks by some foreign government officials and politicians, the commissioner’s office strongly refuted them to set the record straight,” the chief executive said in a statement.

“The commissioner’s office has also been maintaining close contact with the [Hong Kong] government to render assistance to Hong Kong residents in distress abroad … Liu Guangyuan is a veteran diplomat, [I] strongly believe that under his leadership, the office will continue to work closely with the government.”

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After Xie’s departure, Beijing appointed two other deputy commissioners, Fang Jianming and Pan Yundong, in February and April. Fang last month criticised unspecified countries for pressing ahead with sanctions against Chinese individuals and enterprises when he spoke at a national security symposium in Hong Kong.

Analysts regard Pan as a Taiwan expert as he used to be deputy chief of the foreign ministry’s Taiwan affairs office from 1995 to 1998 and the ministry’s Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan affairs office from 2008 to 2011.

Lau Siu-kai, vice-chairman of the semi-official Beijing think tank the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said Liu was expected to work with his deputies such as Pan to help the city guard against national security threats from Taiwan, the US and other foreign states.

“After the imposition of the national security law last June, Taiwan and the US’s influence on Hong Kong has been weakened. But the US is still working with Taiwan and other allies in the Indo-Pacific to contain China,” he said.

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Lau believed Liu was a good choice for commissioner as Western countries hostile to Beijing kept a close watch on the city.

“The US continues to label its struggle against China as a battle between democracy and authoritarianism … but Liu is experienced in dealing with Washington and its European allies,” he said.

“These Western countries are looking at Hong Kong for evidence of China infringing human rights and freedoms … The commissioner needs to be bold in rebutting them.”

Liu was vocal in defending Beijing’s interests while posted in the Polish capital Warsaw.

In March 2019, as Beijing and Washington’s war over Huawei expanded to Europe, Liu warned that giving up on the Chinese tech giant would come at a steep cost to Warsaw.

“If Poland abandons Huawei, it will cost 8.5 billion euros [HK$75 billion] in losses to the Polish economy, and communication costs for the Polish people will more than double,” the envoy told the state-run tabloid Global Times.

On Wednesday, Capitalnews, the Weibo account operated by the official Beijing Daily, said in a post that after then US ambassador to Poland Georgette Mosbacher wrote an article in March last year criticising China over the coronavirus pandemic, Liu hit back the next day, accusing Washington of “twisting facts”.

It added that last July, Mosbacher said foreign countries should not trust China’s 5G companies because they could be used by Beijing for surveillance. Liu also hit back on Twitter and Polish media, saying the US had abused its power by groundlessly suppressing Chinese firms.

Capitalnews noted that in a Global Times interview, Liu dismissed the suggestion China had adopted “wolf warrior diplomacy”, or an overly aggressive foreign policy.

“We respond to malicious smearing, this is called ‘self-defence, and not being like a lamb’,” he was quoted as saying.

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In March, Liu also defended Beijing’s move to drastically revamp Hong Kong’s political system. He said in an interview with a Polish newspaper that Beijing had to overhaul Hong Kong’s electoral system to make sure the city was governed by patriots.

Veteran China-watcher Johnny Lau Yui-siu said these showed that Liu would be bold in safeguarding China’s national interest in his new post.

“Hong Kong has a unique role in China’s diplomacy, as Beijing still wants to rely on the city to connect with countries around the world, but it is still concerned about what Washington and London are trying to do here,” he said.

“Liu’s appointment shows Beijing wanted an experienced official in executing the mission of safeguarding national security in Hong Kong.”

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